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New book ‘Ghost Citizens,’ sheds light on stateless people

Sparwood author Jamie Chai Yun Liew examines the plight of the stateless ‘ghost’ in her latest book
Author Jamie Chai Yun Liew grew up in Sparwood. She is the daughter of a ‘ghost citizen’ immigrant who was denied citizenship in his birth country Brunei (Photo courtesy of Jamie Chai Yun Liew)

There are many people around the world who are considered homeless in the country they call home.

They’re what Sparwood author and immigration lawyer Jamie Chai Yun Liew calls ghosts — people who have deep ties to the country they live in, but are nevertheless denied citizenship by the government, making them stateless in the eyes of the law. They exist in a perpetual state of legal limbo, where they don’t belong to any place, and are overlooked by or are invisible to the greater world.

Liew’s new book, Ghost Citizens, shines a light on this issue through 20 interviews with stateless people from Malaysia, as well as additional lawyers, academics and activists. It examines unjust legal practices that are happening in Malaysia, including citizens who are accused of being foreigners without any legal proof, and people who are ignored by the government when attempting to gain or verify their citizenship.

“Being stateless is a very precarious status. It means you’re legally homeless,” she said. “… When you don’t have citizenship, you’re at risk of being excluded from accessing education, health care and housing.”

Liew is currently a practicing immigration lawyer in Ottawa, but she was born in Fernie and grew up in Sparwood.

Her father immigrated to Canada in the early 70s after experiencing statelessness in his home country. He was born and raised in Brunei, but was not granted automatic citizenship by the government there because his family was ethnically Chinese.

“I used to think that his story was very unusual, that it was an anomaly, that it was only something that he experienced or that very few people experienced,” Liew explained.

“When I became a lawyer, I started to see a lot of different cases of stateless people, particularly those who were coming to me to seek immigration status in Canada. It made me think about how widespread this was and how little is known about it.”

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She initially wanted to conduct research for her book in Brunei, but the people she approached there were too wary of the government to speak to her, so she ended up settling on neighbouring Malaysia, another country with many stateless people.

The stateless people she met with there told her stories of being denied citizenship simply because they didn’t look Malaysian, or of the state state simply not responding to applications for citizenship or attempts to verify citizenship, and leaving people in the dark.

They complained of not being able to go to university or join a sports team because they lacked the proper legal identification to do so.

A common theme was that they felt invisible and described statelessness as a sort of purgatory where they were alive, but not truly able to live. Liew said this motif was ultimately what inspired the name of the book.

A young woman named Roisah had a story that particularly resonated with Liew. The government refused Roisah citizenship for many years because she was adopted, even though she was raised by Malaysian parents who took steps to make the adoption official through proper legal channels.

“This person has family connections, has deep ties there, and despite all of our ability to attest for this person, the state can still say no,” said Liew.

Writing the book prompted Liew to think about her own experiences as a child of immigrants, and what her life would have been like had her father never came to Canada as an economic migrant and settled in Sparwood.

“If, for whatever reason, my father had not applied, if he had never migrated, there’s a good chance that I would be stateless today in a country that doesn’t see me as part of their country. My opportunities would have been very limited in terms of my education and my career,” she said.

“I feel like it’s just pure luck and timing of my father’s life choices that really changed the course of my own life.”

About the Author: Gillian Francis

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